The BVI’s vibrant history and the people who made the Virgin Islands what it is todayRemnants of the Virgin Islands’ past dot its hillsides and hug its shores. There are old wells, slave walls, churches and cisterns. There are remnants of 18th century forts, the crumbling walls of plantation great houses and the coppers and stills from former rum distilleries. Whether artifact or wall, each tells a unique story of the people that once lived here and the toil, hardships and rewards that they had encountered.
Sites range from an ancient Amerindian village, to African burial grounds and 18th century sugar works. Some require a machete and a trek through challenging terrain, but many are preserved with easy access. Covered by bush, or dotted with benches, each reveals a slice of Virgin Islands history, and an insight into the people who came before us.
Tortola’s First People
One of the most fascinating chapters of Virgin Islands history is its earliest. Long before Columbus discovered these islands in the name of Spain, before Dutch settlers erected the islands’ earliest forts and English planters grew sugarcane along its hillsides, the Virgin Islands were inhabited by the Taino Indians, descendents of the Caribbean’s earliest Indian tribes who migrated to the Antilles from South America over 3,000 years ago.
And while remnants of forts and plantations still dot the islands, vivid reminders of the area’s colonial past, there is little tangible evidence of the Tainos who peopled the Virgin Islands around 800 years ago. What does remain of their presence is primarily found in the archeological record. The remains of charcoal pits show where they cooked their food; the shells of whelks and clams, and the bones of small animals indicate what they ate.
One of the Taino’s most studied villages can be found in Belmont on the West End of Tortola. Today, the area has become overgrown with a tangle of bush and tamarind, but 800 years ago, a large area in the Belmont palm grove was the home of a vibrant Amerindian community. Archeologists studying the area for a 10-year period starting in the mid-1990s unearthed evidence of a busy village of fishermen and farmers. In the mangrove fringed inlet behind the beach at Long Bay, villagers gathered whelks from the rocks lining the shoreline and launched their fishing canoes from the beach.
Communities ruled by a Cacique, tribal chief, practiced religious rituals. Corn, sweet potato and cassava were grown in the area’s rich soil and cassava ground into flour and made into a flat bread was cooked on stone griddles. They played elaborate ball games, spun cotton into fiber with spindle whorls to create simple clothing.
For cooking and for use in rituals, they formed pottery from clay which they incised with cross hatching, or decorated along the rim with adornos – figures of animals and deities.
There are no visible remains of this village at Belmont, the archeological site has long been grown over with thick bush. But if you want to feel the spirit of these early ancestors, walk down to the western end of Long Bay and look up at the triangular hill at the end of the beach.
This hill, known as Belmont Hill or Sugar Loaf, was once worshiped by the Tainos as a zemi. Three-cornered idols or fetishes sometimes carved of stone or wood, the zemi could also be a feature of the landscape. Ceremonial objects excavated in the village, which were aligned with Sugar Loaf’s peak, indicate its spiritual significance to a tribe that lived on Tortola centuries ago.
Making de Rum
When European settlers came to the Virgin Islands in the mid 1600s, the Taino population was long gone. The Dutch, who built a fort on Tortola’s western end, were the first to arrive, but were soon supplanted by the English, who planted the hillsides with cotton and sugar. They built stone great houses to live in and sugar works and rum distilleries to process the sugar and generate its most lucrative products: molasses and rum for export to England.
While the crumbling stone remains of plantation houses and sugar works dot the islands, two beautifully preserved historical sites are the Mount Healthy Windmill, the British Virgin Islands’ only remaining windmill structure, and the 1780 Lower Estate Sugar Works Museum. Both are open to the public and both offer a glimpse into the era when sugar was king.
The 18th century windmill at Mount Healthy National Park, located just above Brewer’s Bay, was once part of a thriving 250-acre plantation. It was constructed from field rubble, with large arched apertures accented by cut stone blocks. Its blades are long gone, but the windmill remains a testament to the enslaved workers who harvested the sugar cane and helped process it at the windmill. Across the road from the windmill lie the ruins of the animal powered mill round, the factory with boiling houses, the distillery, hospital and living quarters.
At various times a sugar refinery, courthouse, cotton ginnery and guest house, the 18th century Lower Estate Sugar Works Museum sits on the eastern fringes of Road Town, a reminder of a time when sugar and cotton were the islands’ main industrial engines, not tourism and finance.
The building was constructed in 1780 by the McCleverty family who built their sugar works of thick stone and brick masonry walls. It had sturdy shutters, and a mill round outside for crushing the cane. Inside, copper vats boiled the juice, which would be dried into granules, or turned into molasses or rum.
In the years following the abolition of slavery in 1834, the plantation way of life came to an end, as did the large-scale cultivation of sugar. The sugar works was eventually utilized as an agricultural station and by 1900, cotton processing equipment was installed to give the islands’ farmers an economic boost. Today it is separated from the sea by landfill and the dual lane road that runs through Road Town, but up until the mid 1960’s it sat on the water’s edge where its products, whether sugar, rum or cotton, had easy access to ships in the harbor. As a 21st century museum, the Sugar Works now contains art, historical, cultural and natural history exhibits.
Where They Lived
Slavery shaped the early European history of the Virgin Islands. It was enslaved peoples from Africa that worked the plantations during the heyday of the VI’s plantation era from the mid 1700s to the third decade of the 19th century. While there are tangible remnants of the planter way of life throughout the islands, evidence of the slaves that worked the plantations is harder to come by.
Born into a Quaker family, John Lettsom went on to become the founder of the London Medical Society, the first professional physicians group of its kind, and a champion of medical treatment for the poor. The foundations of his house, constructed of ballast brick, stone and limestone mortar can still be seen on a small knoll on the southwestern corner of Little Jost Van Dyke. The great house had been a large one-story structure with sturdy foundations, a long veranda and a stone staircase leading up to the home’s main entrance.
In 2009, an archeological excavation unearthed evidence of not only the Lettsom family lifestyle, but shed light on the lives of the slaves that worked there.
Tangible evidence of where they lived was found when the team unearthed chunks of wattle and mortar just below the plantation house. Wattle and mortar was typical of the building material used for slave dwellings, confirming that the area most likely contained slave dwellings. Ceramic shards were also found on the site, some rough as one would expect to be used by slaves, as well as refined pieces most likely used in the great house. Behind the main dwelling is evidence of other structures including a cistern and a stone oven. Near the oven, a quantity of pipe stems were discovered, believed to be left behind by house servants tending the oven.
According to lead archeologist John Chenoweth, slave society was a complex one. Although it is known that they had their own trade, social life and religions, there is so much more to learn about the enslaved workers on which the plantation economy depended.
Soon after Emancipation in 1834, the plantation era came to a close. Within the next decade or so the planter class left the island and much of the land came into the ownership of the former slaves, who embarked on a life of subsistence farming and fishing. Their homes, constructed of local hardwoods, had wide balconies, hip roofs and open plan interiors designed to keep the structures cool and strong. Examples of such traditional homes can still be seen scattered along the islands’ ridges, in Carrot and Apple Bays and along Main Street in Road Town.
Gone but not Forgotten
One of the most significant burial sites in the islands is located at Kingstown, just east of Road Town. The site once housed a community of free blacks that came to Tortola in the early 1800s. In transit to the West Indies when the Abolition Act of 1807 came into effect, these slaves were taken to Tortola where they were granted land at Kingstown and set up a large community.
The tall, stonewall remains of the church they built, St. Phillips, is now the centerpiece of a memorial park being developed by a local preservationist group spearheaded by Dr. Patricia Turnbull and Dr. Catherine Smith of the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College. As part of the ongoing project, a historically accurate stone and brick wall has been built to enclose the site. Archeologists from St. Croix have identified numerous burial mounds including a children’s burial site, a testament to the people who once lived here and were part of a once vibrant free African community.
Tucked at the back of Road Town in the area known as Johnsons Ghut is another burial site: the Johnson’s Ghut Burial Ground. A stonewall surrounds the site and a sturdy iron gate marks its entrance. A plaque on the graveyard’s wall simply states “Johnson Ghut Burial Ground: Resting place of some planters and their families established during the plantation period 1666-1834.”
Raised vaults constructed of masonry and brick, and intricate inscriptions carved onto the stone markers are testimony to the lives that are buried there – 50 in all. Barristers, merchants and sea captains are buried at the site, as is the wife of one of the islands’ earliest administrators, Mary Purcell who was laid to rest in the graveyard in 1768 at the age of 39.
The Virgin Islands’ history long and colorful history was shaped by the people who once lived here, whether Taino, slave, free black or planter. Each laid the foundation for those who live here today.